Saturday, February 26, 2011

New post on the Blog of the Early Republic about popular misconceptions of Constitutional interpretation and prevalent historical fallacies floating amongst our fellow citizens.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Right of Revolution, Assassination, Context, and the Plague of Non-Sequiturs

At the time of the Tucson shootings, I toyed with this essay as a way of saying at least three things: 1) the right of Revolution—and with it a contextually defensible right of assassination—should not be scrapped in the tragedy of the moment which was and is an indefensible act of a deranged murdered; 2) that those who used the situation as an attempt to muzzle their political opponents were engaged in the worst sort of demagoguery and intimidation I have seen in a long time; and 3) that the historical parallel I thought most apropos for the entire unfolding situation—dominated by a proliferation of absurd non-sequitur arguments—was the crisis leading to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

I did not post it back then for three reasons. The first was the enormous tragedy of the situation made me worry about being misunderstood as being somehow offering mild apology for Mr. Loughner’s despicable and unjustifiable crimes. I do not think his actions have any excuse and justice will soon see him dead, I fervently hope. The second was that many very able public personages combated the notion that TEA party rhetoric or opposition to Obamacare or the President himself was somehow creating a culture where assassination was permissible and more likely to occur. And they did so very effectively and persuasively. The third is that I was never quite satisfied with how all of the elements of this essay fit together. I will plead, lamely, that as a busy writer and researcher I just did not have the time to fix it to my satisfaction and events eventually overtook the timeliness of the piece.

All of that said. Enough time has passed. There are some relevant things here that may not have been said by others—some I know for certain were not said. And despite it’s flaws as a discreet piece of writing, it is still, I think, readable. Enough prefatory excuses, here it is, weeks late........

With Jared Lee Loughner’s play for historical notoriety on January 8, 2011, in what is one of the most despicable assassination attempts in a regrettably long history of such actions, there has been an almost as regrettable amount of hand-wringing over the freedom of political speech in our republic. Much of this hand-wringing is motivated by shameless partisanship—the very thing that is allegedly at fault for Mr. Loughner’s actions—but a penchant for irrational non-sequitur argumentation is also on full display. This form of argumentative fallacy is prevalent throughout contemporary American politics, but it is rarely properly identified and it’s utterly pernicious effects are even more rarely understood. In this particular instance, it is being deployed to surreptitiously attack the first and second amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, much of the alleged “analysis” is muddying the waters as concerns the natural right of revolution and the derivative right of assassination.

To that in a moment. Read Mr. Loughner’s “views” and you will see the classic non-sequitur caricatured—though entirely unintentionally it would seem. Grammar is a conspiracy to control people, those who do not realize this are “illiterate,” those who are “illiterate” are stupid and deserve at the very least contempt—death at the worst. This is Loughner’s—this is one of them anyway—non-sequitur analysis of the world around him. With it, he eventually was able to rationalize his actions. This sort of sloppy irrationalism (and all non-sequiturs are either inherently sloppy, dishonest, or both) plagues modern culture and political debate—as well as most academic debates. But on top of Mr. Loughner’s logical contortionism, those who shamelessly advocate the “soft” totalitarianism of “social democracy” are adding their names to the list of bizarre and obvious fallacy pandering.

The principal villain—and there are numerous others—in this current logical fiasco is New York Times columnist and Princeton Economics professor, Paul Krugman. Writing in a New York Times op-ed piece on the day after Loughner’s assassination attempt/murder spree, Krugman solemnly intoned: “So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It’s really up to G.O.P. leaders. Will they accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric? Or will they try to dismiss the massacre as the mere act of a deranged individual, and go on as before?” Let me be entirely clear. Even if Mr. Loughner was a right-wing extremist, a card carrying member of some Tea-Party movement, an avid listener to Republican radio commentators, in short everything Mr. Krugman clearly wishes he had been, the non-sequitur would still be illegitimate. No nationally prominent politician or commentator has called for violent revolution, for assassination, for threatening lawmakers, or for anything even remotely aimed at intimidating their opponents with armed and violent mobs. Even if such a person existed, adult human beings are responsible for their own thinking and actions. If a politician I admired (if such existed) called me to revolt and murder leaders of the opposition, I would not as a matter of course listen to or act upon such a demand. If I did, I would be responsible for that choice. Of course, there is no “climate of hate” that inexplicably goads otherwise law-abiding Americans to do something which, if there were no vociferous debate, they would not do. Even if there was, the legal remedy would remain the same regardless.

For decades, those on the left insisted that the acts of isolated American communists—an ideology devoted to revolutionizing (violently) the world, including the United States—should not be used against their non-violent cohorts, fellow travelers, and sympathizers. Now, it seems, such tarring and feathering is not only to be encouraged, it is to be fabricated automatically upon learning of any tragedy when one’s own political ambitions are currently under assault. And they aren’t even stopping at the bastion of liberal bleeding hearts—gun control—they are riding straight on through to quashing voices on the radio they despise and commentators on TV that they loathe. Jay Rockefeller, the Senator from West Virginia and a Democrat, recently advanced this sort of censorship in a sub-committee hearing some months before Mr. Loughner’s actions. No one took Rockefeller seriously back then, but now real bona fide heroes of the movement to assure individual rights to African-Americans—James Clyburn of South Carolina—are publicly advocating censoring their enemies if they are on the “public” airwaves in proportions and volumes they do like or approve of. What a tragic way to belittle an otherwise heroic career.

We ought not to lose sight of why so many Americans are upset, rallying in the streets, politically active, and belligerent at this moment in time. For at least the last two years (and much longer) the federal government, under the control of Republicans and Democrats, has behaved irresponsibly—and that’s putting it mildly. Five trillion dollars has been added to the national debt on a series of fool’s errands, from unnecessary bailouts directed at failed and inefficient industries and firms to nearly one trillion dollars to “stimulate” the economy through one-time expenditures on items not in general demand. On top of that abomination of fiscal recklessness, the President and his allies in Congress rammed through, in the sleaziest way, an overhaul of an already overregulated health delivery system under a subterfuge that healthcare is an unalienable right and must be guaranteed by the state. A great many Americans were alarmed by these things. A great many Americans are still alarmed by these things—as well as their sequels, most prominently a proposed Carbon regulation bill that would fundamentally alter the American economy and way of life. They were and are right to be alarmed. But we need to be clear. They have been moved to political action, not revolutionary action. They have organized to run candidates and campaigns, not collect arms and soldiers. They would not be justified in the latter—but not, as some seem to suggest, from some unalterable principle of absolute non-violence.

The natural right of revolution remains with all of us. It is an extra-legal right, outside the normal course of law and order, to be resorted to by the people only, in Jefferson’s words, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” There is no right to revolt for “light and transient causes;” because the right of revolution, once invoked, holds the potential to unleash a hellish nightmare of civil war and death that can result in a state of affairs far worse than those which prompted it to begin with. It should only be resorted to when all other remedies are exhausted. In the United States today the people still freely speak, assemble, petition, run for office, and vote. They can still, if they care to do so, alter the course of their government, protest its actions and seek redress. While they suffer from onerous regulations in many facets of life, they are not without real and legitimate recourse whenever they should find these things intolerable. But the American people can only attain that sort of change through concerted and vocal political action through numerous election cycles. Our republic was designed that way on purpose to make sure that popular and transient movements, often combined with sudden exigencies, did not create permanent and lasting legacies that could not be undone under the normal course of legislating and governing under the rule of law.

Assassination in American history is terrible enough without Mr. Loughner’s recent actions to cast such an act into nearly irredeemable disrepute. But we must not forget the context that surrounds assassination as a political act. In a free society—in our republic as it now stands—assassination can have no justification. It is, quite simply, murder plain and simple. But not all political societies are like ours—and ours may not always remain as it is now and has been in the past. An assassin’s bullet, or knife, or poison can be a laudable object in a repressive regime, in an absolutist monarchy, in a communist death-state, and in a dictatorship. And this leaves out the insurrectionary actions of slaves in all slave-based regimes from Sparta, to Rome, to Haiti, to the United States. When Marcus Junius Brutus conspired to assassinate the Roman dictator Julius Caesar he stepped, not into infamy, but heroic legend. The putative assassins of Adolf Hitler, while being far less heroic than the ancient Roman, have had their historical legacies partially redeemed through the simple act of trying to murder the German leader. The context of a political regime and the assassin’s motives are what makes, and what has always made, assassination either an abomination to be deplored, or the heroic act of a patriot. For an example of dueling contextual analysis of a political assassination one need read no further that Shakespeare’s thrilling oratorical duel between Brutus and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. The contemporary American republic is not a place where assassination can be justified. But we should not lose sight of the possibility—a possibility I hope never to see—that the American republic may travel into the territory of all other failed republican experiments: corruption, collapse, and dictatorship. If that ever occurs, then you may expect to see assassination take on a life of its own and whatever is left of the regime to exert itself over more and more of society to quash it out. When force and only force becomes the operative mode of society—when, in Robespierre’s chilling words “terror is the order of the day”—then one may expect the seemingly random acts of violence and assassination that always tends to plague autocratic regimes from Napoleonic France to Soviet Russia.

The response to this tragedy on the part of some is inexcusable. From using the acts of this deranged man as the casus belli for mandating the views to be presented on private television and radio stations to shielding congressmen from the angry and heated rhetoric of their outraged constituents when they go too far afield, they are attacking not Mr. Loughner, but all law-abiding Americans. To use this awful aberrant tragedy as an excuse to dust off old tired attacks on the second amendment is not statesmanship, it is cynical opportunism at its worst. We should not allow our freedoms to be further eroded on the coattails of tragedy, as they have so often been in the past. We need to reflect, mourn, and then return to the business at hand. To go off on an errant path to connect this man to forces we dislike is to embrace this lunatic’s disordered imagination. It is to emulate his logical distortions. It is a futile hunt for the missing link in a despicable non-sequitur. That Mr. Krugman and a legion of Sancho Panzas have done just that is, ultimately, unsurprising, but it is shameful all the same.

Finally, I am reminded of the greatest non-sequitur in American history and how it was used to perpetuate a fraud of remarkable magnitude and epic destruction the likes of which we should be most fortunate to always avoid. As the election of 1860 approached, many Southern politicians began to say openly that if Abraham Lincoln were elected President of the United States, as was appearing almost certain, they would consider that action as, ipso facto, a declaration of war and a legitimate cause to invoke an imaginary “right”—unilateral state secession. The Northern Democratic President at the time, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania parroted this absurd logic in an official message to congress after the 1860 election: “The long continued and intemperate interference of the northern people with the question of slavery in the southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other...” The cause for this sudden Southern defection from the Union, this revolutionary act which not even Buchanan could, in the end, justify? According to the last doughface (Northern politician of Southern “principles”) to hold the presidency: “all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they and they alone are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible, and have no more right to interfere, than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.” It did not matter than Lincoln ran on a platform explicitly declaiming any desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed under the protection of state laws—for he would control such diabolical levers of government like the post office as well as a very modest frontier army whose only recent functions were fighting Indians and quelling Mormon rebellion. Lincoln condemned slavery as a moral evil, wanted to prevent its expansion (something that would have occurred anyway if Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge or John Bell—the other candidates in 1860—had been elected instead), and wished to see it end someday (famously predicting 1960 as the possible day it would die out “naturally.”)

Yet Lincoln’s constitutional election was cause for a “legal” revolution masked under the guise of an ahistorical “right” on the part of individual states to withdraw from the Union? It was a string of non-sequiturs that merely justified a hysterical revulsion to the notion that slavery had no moral justification, would be prevented from spreading across the continent, and would thus have to be legislated out of existence eventually to avoid the calamity all slaveowners feared—servile insurrection. To avoid that “disaster,” they precipitated a civil war which, ironically, destroyed slavery in little less than four years, boggling even Lincoln’s very moderate and gradualist expectations circa 1860. Even then, Southern apologists for slavery actively suppressed free speech in the South, stamping out all public criticism of the peculiar institution, while simultaneously attempting to intimidate Northern states into doing the same. They famously succeeded for a decade between the 1830s and 1840s in gagging the congress from hearing petitions from concerned citizens about the blight on their republic that was human slavery. Those intrepid souls were the violent agitators of their day because they simply wished to express their outrage over the government’s timidity in attacking slavery with the powers at its disposal—for instance the power to regulate the territories of the Union before they were organized as States. When the Confederacy finally attempted to break loose from the rest of the republic and established its own government, it quickly engaged in a whole substratum of intimidation throughout the South to make sure Unionists and other “disloyal” forces left, kept their mouths shut, or were, in some cases, imprisoned and/or put to death. Nothing in Lincoln’s entire war-effort against Southern sympathizers in the North compares to the literal reign of terror which loyal Unionists in the South suffered through. It contributed to the over 100,000 citizens from the seceded States that fought in the Union army—a figure that dwarves many times over the couple of thousand citizens of non-slaveholding states that fought for the Confederacy.

The sentiment and personnel that spawned and lead the Confederacy in one of the most ignoble war efforts of modern times—explicitly fought for the “civilizing” force of race-based slavery—was premised on a series of logical fallacies and non-sequiturs. From the notion that the States “created” the Union, to the “right” of legal unilateral state secession, to the very casus belli of the war—the constitutional election of a President they did not like. No long train of abuses existed anywhere. The South was oppressed only with the knowledge that their detractors were hitting a sore spot when they condemned slavery and the perpetual fear that Jefferson had been right—that justice rested with the slaves—and that agitation would eventually lead to a massive rebellion they would be unable to suppress. In response to these “oppressions” they reacted violently and despotically, attempting to crush civil society and free speech, creating a political culture of violent intimidation in order to block voices they considered “unpleasant,” “dangerous,” and likely to “incite violence.” The real sign of a dangerous person is not the one who uses military metaphors and charged passionate speech in defense of liberty; instead it is the person who attempts to suggest people have no right to be upset, to voice their concerns in angry or unpleasant ways, or no right at all to appeal to their fellow citizens to pressure their government in the defense of freedom.

Sharron Angle has been a punching bag during this recent spate of non-sequiturs for having dared to utter the following: “If this Congress [the 111th] keeps going the way it is, people are really looking towards those Second Amendment remedies.” Now, what the candidate meant, I think, was that when the government ignores the people and imposes itself upon them with force to take away their ability to freely contract for services and products that infringe on the rights of no one else, it is injecting force into civil society. The whole point of the government is to make sure force stays out of civil society by retroactively punishing those who introduce it in the first place via the rule of law and the criminal justice system. When the government itself begins to intermeddle in the private affairs of the people, and begins creating winners and losers (intentionally or not) it is going to start creating an ever expanding list of enemies. Most of those enemies are merely going to grumble. But the longer and more invasively these intrusions occur, the more and more likely it will be that some of the victims of these interferences will lash out violently. While we still have the ability to change the policy of the government, this is not a justifiable alternative or reaction. But to pretend it is not a logical consequence would be to deny all human history, human nature, and plain common sense. The second amendment exists, in part, to guarantee that arms are not monopolized by a single, centralized standing military force—in case the people should ever need to resume their unalienable right to alter or abolish, in some cases violently, their form of government. If Angle meant to encourage people to take up arms, then she was in error, and regardless of her intent, this comment along with others combined to create an image of her as an unstable and unpredictable loose cannon that Nevadans—despite intense loathing of Senator Harry Reid—could not comfortably vote for. She almost certainly meant it as simply a warning that governments which overreach into the private lives of their citizens, while those citizens are armed and not yet the slaves of totalitarian regimes, are likely to face the occasional violent rebuke. These rebukes, while inexcusable, should—if they become frequent—serve as a strong warning to all that the current state of things is quickly descending to dictatorship and/or revolution.

The agitators of 1860—and Lincoln could hardly be counted among them—simply pointed out what was to them (and us) the obvious. Slavery was morally indefensible. It was a war against nature. Sooner or later, it would blow up catastrophically as it already had in Haiti, Latin America, ancient Greece and Rome, and even the United States. Southerners not only tried to suppress and ignore these truisms, but despite all historical evidence to the contrary, tempted fate by inviting war into a territory teeming with dissatisfied and disaffected slaves. Then and now, those who prefer putting their hands over their eyes and ears to hum over the unpleasant noises and block out the unpleasant sights around them always try to shoot the messengers who state what is plain to the honest observer. Perhaps ironically, these outrageous non-sequiturs of today, if they ever get put into operation, will result in the very outrage and probable violence they claim to be against.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

First in War, First in Peace, First in Solvency?

First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting. – General Henry Lee

George Washington died, unlike any subsequent American statesman, with a universal sense of loss felt by his countrymen. For a quarter of a century, one man seemed to hold the fate of the American Revolution and the experiment in republican self-government afloat through his own herculean character and self-control. In a number of real crises Washington was trusted with an amount of power and a position of importance that few men in all of recorded history have ever resisted abusing. Americans and observers the world over marked on this at the time and marveled in it. So should we. There has been nothing like it since as all subsequent revolutions ended in anarchy and/or dictatorship.

Much ink has been, and will continue to be, spilled in investigating Washington’s life and legacy. New biographies of major proportions are written about his career at least every decade or so and countless references can and will be made to our first president on seemingly every issue under the sun. But in the present, few issues loom over us quite like our ballooning national debt—being compounded at an unprecedented rate by annual deficits unlike anything we have ever seen in the entire history of the republic.

National debt has been a problem since the very creation of the republic. The very existence of an unfunded debt led very able and intelligent statesmen to toy with the notion that they could goad army officers into threatening to march on the Continental Congress in order to force that body and the states to properly finance the debt and satisfy the nation’s creditors. Fortunately, in that instance as in so many others, Washington was there to deftly and firmly handle the crisis, remind his friends that unleashing the army from its subordinate position to the civil authority would likely—as it had so many times before in history—“deluge our rising Empire in Blood.” The Rubicon remained uncrossed.

But the conspiracy at Newburgh was just the latest near miss, circa 1783, with a problem well known to the founding fathers and one of the proximate causes that impelled them to abandon the Articles of Confederation for the current U.S. Constitution in 1787-89. That problem related to the fundamental strength and stability of their republic—its ability to finance itself through some manner of tax revenue—and, derived from that, its ability to secure loans and raise armies in times of emergency and war. The late 1780s were not peaceful times in the western world. The British had never evacuated their frontier forts—as stipulated by the Treaty of Paris in 1783—because they were protesting what they considered the American failure to deal justly with loyalists and their property. War—including the past war debts from the Revolution—stalked the republic in its earliest years and with it the republican nightmares of standing armies, burgeoning debts, and higher taxes. In short, debt was tied up with a nexus of fears and worries that were all too real and that were illustrated in the fates of former republics, the corruption of the British government, and the collapsing French monarchy mired in the debts of a century of warfare.

On the matter of paying the war debts from the Revolutionary period and protecting the republic through a government capable of raising armies and the funds to pay for them, Washington’s loyalties were never much of a secret. But Washington was determined to not be a Caesar or a Cromwell (later Napoleon’s name would join the list). To have used the trust he had gained during the long years of hardship of the Revolution, even for a purpose he deeply believed was necessary, troubled Washington greatly. But his friends, at this time mainly his Virginian neighbors Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as his former aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton of New York, persuaded him that the times were dire enough—that the country’s very future was in jeopardy—that Washington’s legacy would either be enhanced by success or that he and the country would fail together. In the event of the latter, if he had not attempted to save his country all his previous efforts would have been for naught and would be forgotten at best.

It is in this context that the 1790s need to be understood. This is difficult because the Federalist overreaction to the war scare with France at the very end of the period and Jefferson’s interpretation of his subsequent election to the Presidency has obscured much of what was really going on before 1798-99. George Washington, upon being unanimously elevated as the nation’s first President, wanted to give what was already expected to be the new cabinet’s most controversial and important position—the Treasury—to Robert Morris, the Financial Superintendent most responsible for giving any semblance of soundness to the Continental Congress’s finances during the war. Morris was not interested in the job however (angling for a Senate seat), leaving his old lieutenant—Gouverneur Morris—or Washington’s financially astute former aide Hamilton the likely candidates for the job. Hamilton’s plan—assumption of the state war debts, creation of a national bank similarly modeled after the 17th century Bank of England to finance the debt, and the promotion of domestic manufactures—was largely a repackaging of what nationalists had been fighting for since the final years of the Revolutionary war. Each piece of it was tied to what all perceived was the new government’s primary function—to gain respect in the world and to protect the freedoms won by the revolution against anarchy at home and tyranny abroad. Almost all of this program was passed by the first congresses—the major exception being the idea to have direct Federal support for certain domestic manufactures. In his Second Annual Message to Congress, Washington gladly reported the first fruitful results of the nation’s new footing: “The progress of public credit is witnessed by a considerable rise of American Stock abroad as well as at home. And the revenues allotted for this and other national purposes, have been productive beyond the calculations by which they were regulated. This latter circumstance is the more pleasing as it is not only a proof of the fertility of our resources, but as it assures us of a further increase of the national respectability and credit; and let me add, as it bears an honorable testimony to the patriotism and integrity of the mercantile and marine part of our Citizens.”

Washington’s two terms in office occurred at a time that any rational person would have considered dangerous. The new republic got started already heavily in debt, assuming powers heretofore unexercised by any authority since the British authority had collapsed, frontiers being monitored by a string of British forts and harassed by their Indian trading partners (the British traded weapons for furs primarily), pirates in North Africa raiding American commerce and demanding tribute, and the republic’s best ally, Louis XVI, facing revolution in Paris. It was hardly a propitious time to begin, but neither was it a time to not have a more powerful and effective government in place. Hamilton’s financial plan, which was heavily debated in Washington’s cabinet—the Commander-in-Chief accepting argument papers from both sides before endorsing Hamilton—as well as both houses of Congress, came just when the country needed to begin arming for war (both with the Indians and the British), paying off the pirates, and finally getting a hold on the national debt.

Below are charts illustrating the national debt during this period from various vantage points including total nominal dollars, per capita nominal dollars, and adjusted per capita dollars. I have included the Civil War years in the final chart to illustrate just what a tremendous emergency that conflict was and how the debt accumulated in those years dwarfed all that came before. What should be immediately apparent is not only the fact that the country began with nearly it’s highest debt right at the beginning, but that the financial plan put in place under Washington—which the Jeffersonians did not significantly alter except during the 1812-1816 period when the First Bank of the United States ceased to exist—quickly led to its reduction within a decade interrupted only by the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. Those latter two endeavors were successful (meaning the Government could afford them and survive), along with a war against the Barbary Pirates, uninterrupted interest payments, continuing wars against and payments to various Indian tribes, and the real first steps at retiring the debt, because of Washington’s priorities in the first years.

Upon leaving office, Washington issued his farewell address. That document is a wonderful legacy to us, the heirs of the Revolution, and it addresses a great many topics that are still quite relevant. But on the matter of debt and debt financing, Washington was quite explicit: “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expence by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expence, but by vigorous exertions in time of Peace to discharge the Debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear.” To those who would look to spend more when government revenues fall, and who would cut the defense of the republic in a time of peril, when almost three times as much money is being allocated to non-defense spending, Washington’s farewell words are a stinging rebuke. This should surprise no one. The founders were republicans and liberals who invested the Constitution of the United States with ample powers to foster Union, raise armies and navies, pay for them, and accumulate (temporarily) and finance debt. However, it was a government limited by the rights of its individual citizens and its own crucial, but circumscribed, sphere of operations along with its strict divisions of power between the branches of the government and between the Federal government and those of the States.

Finally, Washington knew he stood first in a nation of equal citizens and not a nation of subjects. As such, he knew and expected everyone else to know, that they could not simply elect officials and then abdicate their responsibilities as citizens. Speaking of spending and debt Washington lectured his countrymen as only he was allowed: “The execution of these maxims belongs to your Representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate.” If that meant more revenue was needed for the “public exigencies” then citizens should be there for their republic, but always with a view that any suffering would be temporary so long as everyone was willing to deal with the crisis promptly and honestly. In his last message to Congress, Washington said, once more, that “it will afford me, heart felt satisfaction, to concur in such further measures, as will ascertain to our Country the prospect of a speedy extinguishment of the Debt. Posterity may have cause to regret, if, from any motive, intervals of tranquility are left unimproved for accelerating this valuable end.” His countrymen did just that in the decades to come, retiring the debt entirely in the second term of Andrew Jackson less than forty years later.

Hard choices and dangers lie ahead of us. On that score no one should fool themselves in the least. A debt as large as $14 trillion is scarcely comprehensible and seems entirely out of our reach as far as ever getting it to stop accumulating, let alone to begin reducing it. But we must begin that process and we must begin it now. None of Washington’s contemporaries, not Hamilton, not Adams, not Jefferson, not Madison, not any of them that I am aware of, advocated an always expanding unlimited debt. The most Hamilton ever said on that score was that in times of warfare, the rate at which the government could and should accumulate debt was irrelevant so long as it could finance the interest. If the government were destroyed, its debts would hardly matter. But all were far too familiar with the wrecks of past and contemporary governments to be cavalier on the subject of debt. Washington always advocated a bold, firm, and manly confrontation of problems if one wanted to honestly deal with them.

No issue deserved a resolute response more than the fiscal solvency of the republic—quite simply everything else depended upon it in the late 1780s. If we do not confront our own ever-growing mountain of debt, we will have come right back to where we began when our first President rightly said “the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Those Americans proved themselves worthy of his confidence. Will we?

Friday, February 18, 2011

This coming Tuesday, February 22, marks the 279th Birthday of George Washington--the undisputed first man of our republic. In light of current events and what seems to be an inescapable future of crippling debt--already over $14 trillion with no end in sight--I will be posting a special essay on Washington's life and achievements in politics (as opposed, to say, his handling of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War) and what, if anything, his example offers to us, his legatees in republicanism.

On a side note, the day is also the 164th anniversary of Zachary Taylor's astounding victory over the Mexican army of the dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. There is no doubt that Taylor's victory over an army more than three times the size of his own force (less that 5,000 men) propelled the very unpolitical "Old Rough and Ready" into the White House less than two years later. As one of our more stalwart and meritorious Chief Executives, I will make the special plea that on Presidents Day you not forget some of the lesser known, but upright and laudable, figures who've held the Executive Chair and performed their duties ably and without malice or malevolence of purpose. Surely, Zachary Taylor, who died midway into his term in the summer of 1850 in the midst of an unscrupulous barage of Southern threats of war and secession (Taylor was himself born in Virginia, raised and matured in Kentucky, and officially living in Louisiana when not assigned away with the Army), was such a figure and worthy of our continued respect and gratitude.